Activism Through Art: Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova On the Legacy of Judy Chicago

"Judy built the feminist church of my Utopian dreams to show us a vision for the world that could exist outside of the walls of a museum."

Nadya Tolokonnikova puts it plainly when I ask her what Judy Chicago means to her: “Judy is the Godmother of feminist art.”

A older womain in sunglasses with platinum blonde hair crosses her arms as she smiles for the camera
Judy Chicago, 2023. Photo: Donald Woodman, © Donald Woodman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I’m on a Zoom call with Tolokonnikova, the activist who founded the Russian dissident art collective Pussy Riot—and was recently arrested by Russia in absentia. Today, she’s mulling over the importance of one of the most towering figures in activism, art and the concept of feminism itself.

Artist Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. Pussy Riot

“The work and research that Judy has made, and the enrichment of history she creates both on a pure intellectual level and on an artistic one to allow people to receive it all is profound,” Tolokonnikova explains of Chicago, who a half century ago founded what’s considered the first feminist art program. While her body of work is immense, she is perhaps best known for The Dinner Party; on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum, it depicts a table boasting guests ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe to Sacajawa.

A view of an art installation with still images and video mounted on the wall and a table of photographs
“Judy Chicago: Herstory,” 2023, exhibition view, New Museum, New York. Courtesy New Museum, Photo: Dario Lasagni

“She’s brought deep changes to our culture,” Tolokonnikova muses. “That’s the power of art; if it hits hard it can change culture; if not forever, then for a long time.”

Tolokonnikova is speaking to me from an undisclosed location, and if you’ve taken even a cursory glance at the news in the past few years, you understand why. As part of Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova was vocal about Russian strife long before the invasion of Ukraine, raising the ire of people like Vladimir Putin. In 2012, she made global headlines after she was arrested for “hooliganism” (her crime: performing at a Russian cathedral). Tolokonnikova was imprisoned with bandmate Maria Alyokhina, but the two were later released.

As the world has grappled with the ongoing upheaval in her native country, the 34-year-old has become an icon of activism—a reputation that led to a longtime friendship and collaboration with the 84-year-old Chicago. Most recently, that partnership manifested in the form of the New Museum’s “Judy Chicago: Herstory,” which is one of the most comprehensive New York showcases of Chicago’s work to date, spanning more than 60 years of art through activism.

Tolokonnikova spoke to Observer about the exhibit, Chicago’s influence and how the collision course of art and activism can change the world.

Do you remember your first time hearing about Judy?

I think I was about 18 years old. I was interested in growing and growing more and more curious about feminist art practices. I was part of a collective at the time which was an activist performance art group. It was a mixed-gender group, but there was sexism inside of the group. I was feeling more and more mistreated in the situation, as I contributed a lot but it was never noticed. So it made me learn about history deeper, and that’s what made me learn about Judy Chicago first.

As part of the exhibit, you and Judy collaborated on a digital “question center” where the public can contribute their “imaginings of an egalitarian future.” How did you get involved in this particular project? 

Judy was interested in building a movement. She’s known for building awesome participatory projects and letting the audience into her work. This time, she wanted to do something digitally, with the metaverse and explore how it could help her transcend borders and build a more inclusive movement.

I was working a lot with digital art at the time; this was over a year ago. Judy once invited me to talk about digital art as sort of an expert in those topics, because I’m a founder of the cryptocurrency initiative Ukraine DAO, and we’re known for raising seven million dollars for Ukraine. I think I’ve developed a reputation as a person who knows about digital art and the Metaverse.

That’s how it started, but it grew into something bigger. I read her book and she read mine, and we bonded on a much deeper level. Now it’s just about art; not necessarily digital art even though the ‘quilt’ has a digital component. And it’s something people from all over the world can contribute to. It’s a nice, easy and smooth way for them to interact with a feminist icon like Judy.

What has the response been?

People are coming from all over the world, from India to Mexico. It was important to Judy that the view of it wasn’t Euro-centric.

I remember you saying once that both of your stories may be different, but the themes are the same. How do you grapple with the fact that the fight goes on, and there’s overlap despite your ages?

I think on the scale of human history, we aren’t that far apart. Human life is just one moment, we’ve been here, for not long. So we didn’t get our rights a long time ago, and I think that might be excessive optimism both inside the feminist movement, and outside. People on the outside tell us we’ve achieved everything we’ve wanted: we have the right to vote, we can work the same jobs as men can work—with some exceptions, like the exceptions in Russia. There are still things women can’t do, like drive subway cars. There’s no good explanation for that. But while even on the legislative level, we achieved full equality on paper, trends that have been created for thousands of years don’t dissipate so easily. After achieving equality on paper, we have to work hard on equal treatment in culture. It takes multiple generations, and Judy tackled a lot of the same issues when she was my age.

When the Washington Post wrote about “Herstory,” they said, “You can’t understand feminist art without seeing this show.” That must be incredibly gratifying for you, especially considering your long journey.

I have not thought a lot about being gratified. I have issues with working on feeling happy. What’s going on in the world, and in particular going on every day close to home with bad news from Ukraine, I really do have a hard time feeling positive.

If you ask me intellectually, I’m beyond honored. I don’t perceive it as my victory but 100 percent as Judy Chicago’s victory and her celebrations, as opposed to my own ego. But I was lucky enough to be able to attend the opening, and it was incredible. lt felt like a rare room where everybody was celebrating it (her and her ideas). I wish it were happening more often these days.

Judy built the feminist church of my Utopian dreams to show us a vision for the world that could exist outside of the walls of a museum. It doesn’t exist yet, but if you fight hard enough, you can expect it.

Judy Chicago: Herstory” is on view at the New Museum through March 3.

 

Activism Through Art: Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova On the Legacy of Judy Chicago